Where do you draw the line?

I’ve had this drafted for the longest time and I’ve been holding back on posting it because too many people have read it already. My phone kept reminding me about it though, so I thought, “What the heck?” 

Two of the most interesting concepts in the study of addiction are those of licity and its inverse. It amuses me to no end that some addictions are pardonable, even encouraged; while others are sternly frowned upon. My friend, Michael, is constantly tapping – at a keyboard or at a touchscreen. Constantly pouring his thoughts out in poetry and philosophy. I don’t think his poetry is any good and I’ve told him so several times, but that doesn’t stop him. Would it be equally acceptable if he spent as much time with his hands in his briefs as he did tapping?

There are many of these soft addictions that we have labelled as passions now. Socially acceptable, socially encouraged in fact. It pisses me off that Michael can sit in public with his laptop and I can’t sit in that same place with a bottle of vodka. Especially as vodka is really the least of my problems. 

I believe that societal acceptability and the mindless striving for political correctness erodes into people’s personalities. Depression and a suicidal ideation could very well be an integral part of a person’s definition, as could a high libido as a result of mania some other mental disorder. Even schizophrenia (colloquial Nigerian madness) could be part of who a person is. 

I feel like I’ve not made you uncomfortable enough, a few of you might still agree with me so let’s shake things up a bit. Even paedophila is well within who a person is. Whether or not this person’s proclivities are socially acceptable or affect other people does not change the fact that it is an integral part of their identity. A drunk is a drunk in the deepest fabrics of his DNA. He can struggle all his life to suppress it to please people who would rather not see him sleeping peacefully in a gutter, but it does not change who he is. He will see a sweating can of beer and his throat will burn in anticipation. 

If you had said a century ago that two men would one day be allowed to get married and adopt a child you’d have been thought to be not just a dissenter but also a fool. Is the fact that the definitions and limits of right and wrong as well as good and bad are constantly changing not an indication that we shouldn’t stick our necks out for their validity? 

This long introduction is designed to ease you into my story; to help you to see where I’m coming from. I really do not expect it to work. 

In my teenage years, I stumbled around looking for new highs. Michael once told me that it was all an attempt to fill up an unspecified emptiness and that made me laugh uneasily because I did not yet understand what was going on. I popped interesting looking pills, swapped water for vodka and tried as many strains of weed as I could lay my hands on through as many routes as were possible. More recently, someone else told me that I was probably clinically depressed in those years. This time, my understanding of myself and what was going on at those times had improved significantly. It was clear to me that I was growing into the person I am today and with every ‘mistake’ made, an important aspect of me was formed.  

In my experimentation,  I found that happiness is only attainable in short bursts for me and kept trying to get as many of them as possible; living on moments of borrowed happiness. Until one day a clarity like nothing I have ever felt before came upon me. The psychiatrists say that it was a psychotic break, but I don’t agree with them. They even have a name for my disagreeing with them, they call it a lack of insight. The universe spoke to me on that day and has been speaking to me regularly ever since. The puzzled looks on their faces the first time I made this declaration led me to ask if they don’t ever hear it too – If they have never heard the trees speak in the most melodious of voices, explaining life and its complexities and shedding light on everything. 

I am strongly against the use of psychiatric medication because of their ability to alter the essence of a man, to take away what makes him who he is. I’ve asked my doctors what the difference between a man who finds his happiness at the bottom of a bottle and one who finds it in the light yellow pills they prescribe is. I have told them that I am content with happiness purchased in a liquor store or from a guy with bloodshot eyes and a perpetual half-smile. They preach social acceptability, using phrases like adjustment, addiction and relapse. They do not agree that those are sometimes just alternate routes to the same destination. They promise that their pills will stop the trembling, but I am not willing to risk chasing the voices away.

“Listen more to things than to words that are said. The water’s voice sings and the flame cries and the wind that brings the trees to sighs is the breathing of the dead”.

That was Michael’s favourite quote for a while, I’ve made a note to ask him who said it* when next we meet. I’d have looked it up myself, but they seized my phones after I unsuccessfully tried to get my dealer to deliver to the hospital and Michael to bring me vodka. I can’t wait to tell him that the wind and the trees, the flames and the water they all speak clearly to me now. They ask me what the point of all this is. The voices ask why I don’t just end this and become one with the universe while, at the same time, reminding me that I don’t have much longer to wait anyway and might as well just be patient. He’ll be so jealous.

Every morning, after the wind has whistled a good morning to me, one of the nurses comes by and asks if I’m still hearing the voices and offers me my medication again. I ask them to give me a drink instead and I laugh at the worried looks that they invariably give me. They do not understand, they never do. They speak in hushed tones about the drugs that I do not take and the psychotherapy sessions that I do not attend. I have tried to explain that I am not ready for the universe to stop speaking to me. I tell them that I am not ready for silence, especially now that I have heard music. I liken it to a man who has been blind all his life who, when he finally sees for the first time, we tell that vision is not meant for him. 

The voices have been getting quieter lately and sometimes I even have to strain to hear them. The doctors have refused to allow me to leave, even after repeatedly telling them that nothing is wrong with me. I have been able to deal with the tremors and the vomiting, but I don’t think I will be able to cope with the silence. They do not understand and I do not expect them to. A man who has never heard music will say that anyone who dances is insane. 

Tomorrow, there may be silence and the thought of it terrifies me. Today, however, I’m standing on the ward’s corridor and the leaves on one of the trees there are speaking. They are asking if I do not see the inherent beauty in my uncertainty about tomorrow. How it is a perfect metaphor for life itself and the more unsettling uncertainty about what happens when all the colours and sounds of the world as we know it fade into darkness and silence? This subtle segue into solipsism amuses me and I smile. If you were to look up like I did in that moment, you would have seen a cloud smiling back at me.

Michael Akang.

*Birago Diop

Life comes at you fast

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Pre-S: I’ve been writing this very slowly since Friday last week and, as such, the ‘yesterday’s are actually four days ago.

I’m lying on an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room while typing this and my skin is not crawling. I don’t know if this is growth or regression, but I’m comfortable with it. I’ve been in Igbo Ora for nineteen days now and it feels like the days have flown by (which is ironic because the afternoons here seem to drag on forever).

Yesterday was the day I will remember these five weeks of my life by, if nothing phenomenal happens in the two weeks I have left here. A home visit that I expected to be boring helped me to notice a couple of things. It was an overcast Thursday morning and I was dressed in jeans and a tee shirt like the uninterested student I was. I was, however, forced to shun my sandals for converses and throw on a ward coat.

The drive to the venue was uneventful, passing through places where I had administered questionnaires the previous week. On arriving at the venue, I reluctantly alighted from the bus and listened uninterestedly to the home visitor (names withheld) tell us about the home we were to visit. The home visitor was a short middle aged woman who spoke English with the hesitancy (and caution) of someone who would be more comfortable speaking Yoruba. She spoke about the functions of the home visitors, how they divided the city into wards and made records of births and deaths. I forgot the specifics of her talk almost as soon as I heard them.

My attention was drawn back to her address when she mentioned that the first house we would be visiting was the house where, recently, a mother had passed away after giving birth to twins. I immediately remembered that I had not seen a pair of twins since I had arrived at this town, whose natives swear that their yams and Ilasa1 are responsible for the highest twin birth rates in the world. It was unfortunate, I thought, that my first encounter with twins would be a sad one.

We walked into the community under the cover of dark clouds. I wondered if my converses could get any dirtier than they were already as I skipped (unsuccessfully at times) over puddles of water along the dirt road. All eyes were on us (thirteen students clad in ward coats that were white at some point) and it exemplified rather clearly how the individual is very easily lost in a group.

The children in the houses we walked past might have been excited to see ‘doctors’ walking along their roads. They might have, on that day, decided that they wanted to be doctors too when they were older. But the pervading air was one of hostility. One of an unsure community looking at us through hundreds of eyes, wondering why we were here.

We, on the other hand, were the knowledgeable experts. Guardians of human health and lives. Even me who spends most nights watching cartoons and kicking myself for not preparing for my upcoming examinations. Even me whose hands still shake uncontrollably when I have to carry out the simplest procedures. Some members of the group did not even want to be there that day, but we all walked along that dirt road, with confidence that we didn’t yet deserve and faced these people whose eyes carried hostility that they themselves might not have understood.

The houses were placed randomly like the chalets in the general hospital. We walked along a winding walkway that was all the disorderly arrangement of the houses allowed. Almost every house had a grave dug in front of it. As if announcing that we live here and we die here. The goats and the children walked around as if they owned the place and they all stared at us as we passed.

A few moments later we were at the twins’ house. On announcing our presence at the door we were greeted by a response that was surprisingly cheerful. A tiny woman who I guessed was the babies’ aunt came out of a bedroom and welcomed us. I was torn between marvelling at how small the woman was and mentally noting that every house (asides the traditional ruler’s house) that I had entered in this town looked the same on the inside. A central walkway and rooms on either side – what is colloquially referred to as ‘face me I face you’.

While woman one was welcoming us with prayers a second woman came out carrying one of the children. She was clearly the twins’ grandmother. She was even smaller than the first woman and, like her, she was surprisingly cheerful. She handed the baby to one of my more outgoing classmates and went back in for the other one. The air in the room was one of forced optimism, plenty of laughter that you could tell was not coming from anywhere deeper than the women’s diaphragms.

The children were older than I had expected them to be. They looked to be about the right size for their three months and were (are) developing normally. One of them was crying throughout the time that we were there and the other was quietly soiling himself. They did not have to pretend to be alright in spite of their mother’s death. They clearly were and it was a relief.

There were moments of extraordinary poignancy, when these women allowed their guard to fall and you could see a flash of the grief that they were hiding in that dark walkway. The home visitor who took us to their house proved to be excellent at her job and matched their optimism. This was not the time to be sad or to lament about the death of the twins’ mother and wonder how they would fare. She went on as if all was well, asking routine questions and laughing when it was appropriate. You could not be visibly sad for people who hid their own sadness so well.

We left the twins’ house through the back door at the end of the hallway. We walked by many houses before we stopped at one the home visitor was familiar with. Here a young woman was washing clothes outside her house under the watchful eye of her sister in law. She conversed with the home visitor in whispers at times, trying to keep her sister in law out of the conversation. I was not interested so I didn’t try to listen in.

From that point on I zoned out and started to wonder about how I tend to observe my life instead of living it. The group psychology from earlier on had gotten me thinking. I realised that I preferred to leave groups as they were and not attempt to delve into individual motivations and thought patterns because it was too stressful. Is it a personal failing or is it a part of human nature to approach groups and ignore individuals?

I absentmindedly followed my group on the rest of the field trip and it was over soon enough, but not before I came across a particularly interesting grave that had wild flowers growing around it. Coincidence is beautiful sometimes, because this clearly spoke nothing of death’s aesthetics. I wondered if the children of the deceased ever passed by the grave and smiled or if the flowers didn’t help them at all. I thought of another grave in another place with a wreath that must now have withered and I smiled and made a mental note. The rest of the visit was uneventful, at least for me.

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The following day, we went to Eruwa (a neighbouring town where my group members and I were to make an attempt to save our failing study). The buildings here were further apart and had more cement around them. If Igbo Ora’s trucks, motorcycles, petrol stations and eroding tarmac scream that she is not a village, Eruwa’s much better roads and well-planned houses are quietly offended that you would even consider her a village. We made some progress there and it almost made all of the high tempers earlier in the day worth it.

I am writing this now while waiting to head out to a nearby ward to continue administering questionnaires. I think I’m going to miss this place, but it’s not the sunsets and the trees that I will miss. It is the loud conversations about nothing significant that I will miss, the laughter that seems like it will never end. It is the version of myself that I was here that I will miss, and the versions of other people’s selves that they were.

M.

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1The local soup of the people of Igbo Ora made with Ilasa (okra) leaves and traditionally eaten with amala and tomato stew.

Go West

June 14, 2016

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Before I came here, I heard countless times that the sun in Igbo Ora is hot. My response to this, usually, was that the sun is never cold. There are, however, some things that you need to experience for yourself to fully understand. I know now that the midday sun is particularly hot in Igbo Ora because I have felt it on my forehead and on my arms and literally everywhere else. Every afternoon, the sun shines down in misguided love on this small town that is like a deer caught in urbanisation’s headlights. Perhaps this oppressive blanket of heat (and light) is an ironic karmic compensation for the complete lack of electricity supply in Igbo Ora for the past six months (that’s how far back I was able to confirm).

Understandably, I had to wait until early evening when the weather was bearable before I set out to explore Igbo Ora, the twin capital of the world. ( I still have not come across a single pair of twins in the three days that I have been here). I was dressed in a loose grey T-shirt, (borrowed) blue shorts and my trusty brown sandals – all that was left to complete my tourist look was a fitted face cap.

The General Hospital was recently renovated with plenty of money and significantly less planning. The chalets, though coated in fresh cream paint, are placed in such a disorganised manner that the compound always looks untidy – strewn with building-sized litter. I got lost in the compound the night before and as such I consciously tried to map out a floor plan of the compound while I left the compound, passing out of the male hostel (whose main entrance faces a thick bush), passing around the left side of the hostel, past the building housing one of the female hostels and the common room, past the church cum cafeteria, between two misaligned chalets and finally out through the majestic white gates (marking the entrance to a compound that does not have perimeter fencing).

I really wanted to watch my first village sunset yesterday. Sadly, when I set off I realised that I was headed southeast and the sun was going to be setting almost directly behind me. I wasn’t too bothered because there were dark clouds floating in the sky and the odds of me watching a picturesque village sunset were already pretty slim as it was. However, I still held out hope that the crisscrossing of the village roads would eventually leave me heading toward the setting sun, even if it was still hidden behind a shield of clouds.

Passing right in front of the Igbo Ora General Hospital is a long winding stretch of road, the Igbo Ora – Eruwa road, which erroneously appeared to me to be a commercial nucleus of the town, with all sorts of shops and stores on either side of the road. It was more than a little disappointing that I wasn’t going to get the idyllic village setting I had been expecting from this walk. What was striking, however, was the number of petrol stations on the road. There were more petrol stations than cars in some parts and it spoke of a road (and maybe even a town) whose urbanisation rate was overestimated by the developers and was now left with so many petrol stations that no one had any need for. At one of them, the price of PMS was still 86.50 on the signboard. That and the emptiness of the station (save for a bored looking couple who were discussing unexcitedly and looked like they hadn’t seen a customer all day) made it clear that business was not booming.

I continued walking and soon reached a two pronged fork in the road where I chose to go right (I would later find that this was the best decision I’ve made in a while). As soon as I turned right I felt the urban influence of the main road sharply reduce. Here the buildings were closer together and even though a majority of the houses had kiosks and shops in front of them they still had a residential feel to them. The walls of the houses changed from concrete blocks to concrete-coated clay and the roofs were reminiscent of J.P Clark’s Ibadan. Here the goats were now more confident, strengthened by their number.

At the plumbing equipment shop where I stopped to buy a clothesline, the woman’s four children were seated on the floor having beans porridge for dinner. The oldest boy wiped his hands on his shorts to hand me change and rushed back to his food before the change was in my pocket.  There was also the other young boy who was excited to be spoken to in English, but sadly was not the owner of the shop (in his own words) and did not know where anything was.

Even more interesting was the young girl in nothing but her underpants holding on tightly to a teddy bear whose original colour was now covered in and lost to a thick coat of grime. Her eyes told me that I was more out of place in this environment than she was. I wondered at that point what I had been expecting. Did I really think that children in the village could not have teddies?

I walked past a mosque where the men were performing ablution and admired Islam’s minimalism, especially in the month of Ramadan. The mosque was painted green, was impeccably neat and could have been located anywhere in the Nigeria. It was the only part of the community that did not feel like it belonged in this rural community.

A few metres from the mosque was the most interesting staircase I have ever seen. It looked like a normal spiral staircase had been compressed, stretched out and compressed again. I wondered if the man who built it thought himself a modern day Michaelangelo or if he was ashamed of this grotesque structure that he had placed here. He had good reason to be both, the staircase was ugly but it was art nonetheless. I also wondered if anyone in the village found it beautiful (the girl with the teddy bear had taught me that I had come here with misconceptions so I couldn’t jump to any conclusions.

It was around this time that I looked up and realised that I was now headed west and I could see the orange sun dropping slowly into the horizon. This particular sunset was one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen. Perhaps it was the endorphins from all the walking before that time and the serendipitous redirection of my path and consequent sighting of the sun. I didn’t care, I continued going west for a few more minutes because I could not bring myself to stop and turn away from it.

At this point I checked my phone and the map told me that I was two and a half kilometres (or forty five minutes) away from the hospital. I felt like I could continue walking for another few hours but I remembered the warnings from my classmates not to stay out after dark and decided to turn back, sadly missing the end of the sunset. The first part of every walk I take is for catharsis and I take in little more than the scenery. The second part is when I am able to take in the people, their faces and their interactions.

The medical students have become a part of the evening landscape of the town; strolling in pairs to and from one of Igbo Ora’s two ATMs, standing by while an old woman roasts corn for them to buy, haggling over foodstuffs with a roadside seller or taking a lonesome evening walk like I was. I fell in line with one of the ATM pairs and quickly forgot all that I had been thinking about and shared and laughed at jokes and stories until we got back to the Hospital a few minutes later, just as it started to get dark.

The generator was going to come on in a few minutes and it was only going to be on for two hours. We rushed back into our rooms and sat by the sockets. No matter how much we seem or claim to like the pastoral lifestyle in Igbo Ora, it is these two hours – when we are plugged back in to Ibadan and teleported to civilisation – that are the highlight of every day here.

M.
15/06/2016

What are you afraid of?

Late entry for TMI Thursday.

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One of the most vivid memories I have is from when I was no more than 5 years old. I slept in my parents’ room with my father and my younger sister one night when my mother was out of town. The king-sized bed directly faced the wardrobe on whose grey door hung one of my father’s jackets. I don’t remember why the jacket was hung there, I only remember waking up with a start (I do not remember falling asleep) in the almost-pitch blackness of the unfamiliarly orientated room.

My eyes took a few moments to adjust to the darkness and then, when they finally did, I saw the figure of a man walking towards the bed. He had roughly the same build as my father and was drifting ghoulishly – moving slowly, torturously so, towards the bed.

I lay in bed that night unable to move, unable to make a sound. It was the longest night of my life up to that point. Even then, I was aware that the man was just a trick that my eyes and mind were playing on me. He disappeared when I looked away from the wardrobe door he was hung from. I couldn’t look away forever. I kept stealing furtive glances and becoming afraid again every few minutes. My father was lying in bed less than a metre from me with my sister between us but I found myself unable to speak or move to wake either of them up to save me from this faceless man.

I left this experience with a deserved fear of the dark and, for over a decade, I was unable to sleep peacefully with the lights off. I still sleep with the lights on till this day, when it is possible. I no longer wake up with a paralysing fear in dark rooms, but I can never forget the ghoulish, faceless figure I saw that night on Al-Zayyati crescent.

I think I was 9 years old when the second of my fears developed on a drive with my father, sister and young(er)  cousins. It was a Sunday evening and we were in his old off-white BMW with a peach patch on the left side where a panel beater had skillessly attempted to hide a huge dent. We had embarked on a leisurely drive around Ibadan, having gotten bored of the university campus which we had spent the earlier part of the evening exploring. It was a regular Sunday evening, bathed in the orange glow of twilight. I remember sitting in the front seat and having no care, or fear, in the world.

I would have long since forgotten about this particular day if there wasn’t a sudden change in the weather when we were on our way back home. I can never forget how dark those clouds looked that day and how I was sure that the rain they bore would surely destroy the BMW. We were blinded by every flash of lightning and felt every clap of thunder deep in our chests (or maybe that was just me).

I remember the race against the rain that evening, exciting for the other occupants of the car but terrifying for me. There was so much chatter and the occasional thunder-induced squeal. I sat there paralysed by fear, breathing uneasily. They were sure we would make it home before the rain began and, even if we didn’t, what was a little rain anyway? I was sure we wouldn’t and that this rain was going to be our end but I kept my fear to myself. We did make it home in time.

Everyone was grinning from ear to ear as we rushed in just as the light windy drizzle morphed into a veritable thunderstorm. I found no relief in being indoors and I became sure that the rain would uproot the old house from its foundation. This was how I developed my second great fear, a fear of thunderstorms.

My third great fear is a bit more personal. A lot more personal, actually. I remember being maybe 13 and having recently gained a new understanding of death and what it entailed. I remember sitting in a sermon in the “big” church beside my father and suddenly becoming aware of his breathing and how irregular it seemed. I was afraid that he would stop breathing and so I listened to his breathing throughout the sermon. My own breath got caught in my throat a number of times as my father went through a number of brief apnoeic spells during the length of the sermon.

It became a problem for me, especially when I had to return to the children and teenager’s section the following week. I spent the whole period of the service every week terrified that someone would scream from the inside the “big” church and it would be too late. That was my third great fear, although this is the first time that I’m admitting it – that my father would die.

I was always afraid when it got dark and he wasn’t home yet. I remember countless occasions when, in desperation, I would imagine that his car was at a convenient distance from home and begin to mentally travel home in the car with him. I would estimate that he’d be home in x minutes and that would help me to relax for x minutes. He never seemed to be back after x minutes, however, and I had to repeat the process until he came home. As I grew older, I devised a mental reward system where I would play a simple game with myself and the prize for winning would be him getting home safely. I doubt that anyone ever noticed me attempting to throw objects at targets and jumping over obstacles to make sure he was fine. When I got my first cell phone I found it easier to allay my fears by simply calling and asking where he was.

Even as a child, I felt that there was a certain fragility to my father. I remember wondering why I was never scared for my mother, why I was always sure that she would be alright. In retrospect, the common denominator in the development of my two previous fears was my father’s presence. Perhaps there was more to these fears than I thought. Sadly, this is a line of thought that will not end in a good place so I’ll let it go.

A month before my father passed away, a year of binge drinking and months of abuse of cannabis and pain medication led to an embarrassing event that caused me to re-evaluate my self-destructive relationship with the bottle. I regularly speak about going cold turkey and I’d been sober for 18 months until an unfortunate incident a short while ago. It seems now that I’m developing an aversion to being inebriated. It is quite amusing and more than a little confusing how I’ve gone from being unable to function properly while sober to my current state of being scared of getting drunk.

Following my father’s death, I began to be afraid of death as a whole. I think that in my eyes my mother had, until that point, been invincible. But in the past year I have become hyper-vigilant, lest lightning attempts to strike again. I have had a few panic attacks from mishearing what was said on the phone and my mind immediately going into overdrive. This carefulness has, unfortunately, not fully applied to myself. It is not that I have no fear of my own death. On the contrary, the thought terrifies me. It is the fact that there really is not much that I can do to preserve my own life that I’m not already doing. I think.

Recently, I pondered on my fears and whether any of them qualified as a phobia. I realized that I had never, until this post, even acknowledged to anyone but myself that the first 2 actually existed. The third, I had not admitted to myself. It has led to me regularly asking myself what I’m afraid of and giving as honest an answer as possible. I have had many interesting answers, some of which are too interesting to be shared, at least not right now.

There is no moral to this post, it is not motivational. My fears have either been suppressed or replaced, they have not gone anywhere. I still sleep with the lights on. I still find myself unable to look away when rain clouds are gathering overhead. I still surreptitiously examine my mother every time I see her. I still wake up on some nights, in the pitch black of cut power and remember the ghoulish figure from my childhood.

On some particularly difficult nights, it is dark and threatening to rain and I am transported to the BMW and everyone is screaming excitedly again in my head. On these nights, I remember what my father taught me and count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, calculate how far away the lightning is and remember that the lightning is always further away than I think.

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M.

December 19.

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They say all art begins with resistance and I believe them. I believe them because all art is creation and creation must, invariably, overcome resistance. The creator and the creation must partake in an awkward dance, with stamped-on toes and awkward bumping-intos. It is a dance that often takes too long to perfect, too long for the impatient creator to keep trying, too long for the impatient creation to hang around. Hence, many creations die in the minds of their creators.

Creation must first overcome inertial forces, but overcoming is not always enough. All creation is perfect when first conceptualised until part of it is lost in the process of transcription. All creation is imperfect by the time it reaches the consumer, misshapen equally by the inertial forces on the creator and on the creation; and by the forces that overcame said inertia.

Poetry, like all the art forms, is in itself perfect. What we have, however, are imperfect poems and imperfect poets. Many a time, however, imperfection is good enough – all the art that is and all the art that ever will be, it seems, is imperfect. Many galleries and museums and libraries and city squares boldly display masterpieces – works of art that are imperfect.

But, it raises the question of if ever a perfect creation will exist, and if so how it will come into being. I suspect that it happens once in a lifetime, when the artist and the art; the creator and his creation, are in phase and there is no resistance from either side. But it will take a creator that has mastered his art, one who has danced with many of his creations and has learnt the cues that they give and how to dance to the music of the muses.

It will also take a creation that is something special. A creation that maybe is unaware of its own perfection, because it is this awareness that makes the creations too impatient to wait for the bumbling creator to get himself together and create them.

Maybe the perfect creation has been created or is currently being created and we are unaware (although I doubt it would be possible to keep such a thing hidden, only the creator and the creation can tell how close to the initial thought the final product is and consequently, only they can say if it is perfect). Maybe it will never be created (and that’s alright, really).

Maybe all art begins with resistance and, if this resistance is lost, art itself will lose a part of its definition. Perhaps all art begins with resistance and by definition it must be imperfect. Perhaps I have wasted a few minutes of your time, perhaps I have not.

M

November 17.

Does this thing still work? I like how I’ve grown comfortable enough with my blog to no longer feel the need to apologise for long absences. I should be studying but I’m distracted (always seem to be these days.)

Writing thoughts down makes them tangible. It is not always enough to have a thought floating around inside your head. Sometimes thoughts are more abstract than they should be when they are nothing but electrical impulses in the neurons of your brain. There is a rush that comes with seeing these thoughts on paper (or on a screen). The sort of satisfaction, I imagine, that comes when parents look at their children or when a man looks at his creations in the toilet before he flushes (Pardon my American.) It’s that “I created that!” pride.

So, I started keeping a journal and it isn’t going too well right now (seeing as I posted this). Sometimes it’s the best thing in the world – the free expression, putting words to abstractions. It is, however, a chore on dark days when I’d rather leave my thoughts as thoughts – there is nothing to be gained from poking a sleeping cobra. Largely, it is an enlightening exercise and I seem to learn something with every entry that I make, either about myself or about a concept I had hitherto not understood. But once in a while the soliloquy gets boring and I long for human interaction. So I put on my typing shoes and put up a blog post for the people. I guess I’m too much of an exhibitionist to have all that brilliance hidden in an innocent-looking orange book (until I die and it is published as one of those bestselling, insight-filled, posthumous memoirs like Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness.)

So, to the point of this post.

For as long as I can remember, I have had an obsession with dates. Asides my obsession with names and identities I think it is the strongest of my obsessions. Today marks the beginning of many anniversaries. This time last year I was unconscious from chemical intoxication (LOL) for the last time. Although one year without a drink is a pretty big deal (for me). I’ve been putting off writing this because this is the most innocuous of the anniversaries that are coming up, it’s the one with the least chance of causing a mental breakdown. I’m however still hoping for one more year, at least

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I remember the times we shared.

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I’ve been waiting with no eagerness for the last day of this year for a while now. It was so far away before, too far away to be something to be nervous about. Now it’s just six weeks away and I wish I could wish it away. This is not the post where I talk about that.

This post is basically my journal entry for today minus school talk and a certain aspiring clarinet player at no cost at all to the reader. I’m too magnanimous for my own good.

You’re welcome.

Until next time.

M.

The Caterpillar.

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The classist’s biggest fear is that one day he will fall short. That one day he too will be looked down upon. Every human quality can be ascribed a value. Intelligence can be measured on scales, however inaccurate we claim these scales are. True beauty is an objective observation, otherwise it is a lie that people sometimes believe to make things easier.

Wealth is, by far, the most important determinant of social stratification. You see, wealth guarantees entry into circles that beauty, intelligence, hard work and even luck do not. Beauty comes in a very close second. For the rare few that are beautiful enough, beauty is powerful enough control wealth. The zeitgeist is determined by the rich and the beautiful. In effect, they direct everything just by the choices they make and sometimes do not even notice. People shy away from being the first to point out the beauty of a thing, what if society sees it differently? A blouse is beautiful because we saw something similar on that runway or in that film.

Sam’s beauty is the rare kind that is unanimously agreed on – with her softly chiselled face and delicate features. The worst comment anyone ever makes is that she isn’t ‘that beautiful’. It is as if the gods decided to create a goddess and put her on earth as a cruel joke. She is in all the right circles and knows all the right people but it still feels like something is missing. She wakes up every morning longing for something she cannot quite place her fingers on. She only knows that it is not here, in this house with Chuck, her billionaire husband. Billionaire husband and his beautiful bride, it makes her chuckle sometimes, how terribly cliché they are.

What she’s looking for isn’t in the nursery in the next room either, because she has searched for it there, on nights when she can’t go to sleep and she slips quietly out of their bedroom and goes to watch him sleep. Watching her baby sleep does not calm her down like she thought it would. Sometimes she sits on the carpeted floor in the nursery for hours in the dark. The cot (a hideous thing that Chuck brought home the week they found out they were having a baby) is much too large for the room and takes up most of the space in the closet-turned-nursery. There is a comfortable (expensive) chair beside the cot but she prefers to sit on the floor when she’s there at night. All her clothes have been moved to the room that would have been the nursery (but that Chuck said is too far away.)

“What if the baby cries at night, we have to be as close to him as possible?”

She hadn’t had the energy to argue with him – she never has the energy to argue with him. It is just as well that the baby almost never cries. He is the perfect child, always smiling and happy. Sometimes, in her head, she commends her excellent mothering. The fear of failing at being a mother made her map out a timetable and follow it strictly. She feeds the baby every other hour, rocks him almost constantly and changes his diapers as soon as they are soiled. She never gives him a reason to cry.

Chuck told her from the start that he wanted a baby. He is much more excited than she is about it. She remembers when they first got married, how he talked excitedly about fatherhood. About how he couldn’t wait to be a part of creation, to have a little him running around with its own thoughts and its own view of life. How his child could go on to become the president and he’d have been a part of that child’s creation. She had thought that it was a bit narcissistic but didn’t say anything. An almost academic interest was all she had been able to muster in the child since its birth. Sometimes, she wonders how it will turn out but doesn’t close her eyes to the possibility of her son growing up to be a terrorist or, even worse, a politician.

She knew, however, that he was too young to be so reasonable and was initially bothered by how cooperative he was. She thought there was something wrong with him so she took him to the doctor and read up on Down syndrome and Autism. The doctor said that he was fine and she had nothing to worry about. So now she plays him Beethoven and Fela and talks to him like an adult and thanks her luck that he is so agreeable. At least, she sometimes jokes to herself, he probably won’t end up as a terrorist.

The baby is not what was missing in her life. When he was first born and her whole life revolved around him, for a while, she thought she had found what she was looking for. She eventually settled into the routine and it became just that, a routine. It did nothing for her, all the contact with the baby and her fear of being a terrible mother came back but this time she embraced it. This is not the purpose she has been looking for, who cares if she’s terrible at it?

The nursery is now her favourite room in the house. Her favourite room used to be her studio with its black walls and red framed paintings. There were twelve paintings on the wall, eight of which were painted by her and the remaining four by her former lover. She loved sitting on the shaggy white carpet after Chuck had gone to work and pouring her emotions out on a canvas. She loved the long hours that she spent there alone, undisturbed, lost in whimsical thought. It was her version of an affair, those long hours with Obi’s paintings hanging there. Sometimes she fell asleep in the studio and when she woke up she was twenty again, naked in his small apartment, smoking. He was walking into the room with nothing on but his dreadlocks, singing a song in Igbo and dancing around lewdly. In these dreams, she is lying there for what seems like hours watching her naked iconoclast boyfriend dance and she is truly happy.

The studio stopped being her favourite room when Chuck started spending more time there, trying to bond with her. He was wonderful, he really was. She just found him terribly boring. It was made much worse by how clueless he could be at times, how blind he was to all her body language cues.

The walls in the nursery are a neutral green because she didn’t want to check if the baby was a boy or a girl before it was born. She talked about painting trees and flowers on the walls and Chuck chuckled. The following week she walked into the nursery and saw that a forest had been painted on the walls and it was beautiful. The artist had paid an enormous amount of attention to detail and the result was stunning. She knew that she would probably have done a better job but did not complain.

The only thing left in the room of her closet is the wall that is a mirror. It’s a fourth wall of sorts, the reflection of the room, a facsimile, showing it as an audience would see it. When she is in the nursery she cannot take her eyes off the mirror, watching the scene – a clueless mother taking care of her baby in a forest. In the mirror she watches her movements, how sometimes they are a bit too mechanical, almost like it’s a dance routine and she is waiting for an applause at the end. Even in the dark, she still stares at the mirror, empty because there is no light to carry the room into it. At night her movements are not so fluid because there is no one watching, not even her.

It is in the nursery that she learnt what her greatest flaw was. She had lived all her life for an audience, for applause. She was the person who, by good fortune, had won the classism lottery. She was good looking, intelligent, rich, and artistic; she had everything. She also liked to think that she was kind-hearted and did not look down on people but that in itself spoke volumes. She would never admit to it, but she was aware that she was in a different class from most people.

To hand bread to a beggar is to say that you are better than him, it is not your fault and you should not feel guilty. If, however I were to ask you if you thought you were better than the beggar you would become humble and begin to argue about semantics. You are in a different social class from that beggar, richer than him, if it makes you feel any better it can be said specifically that you are financially better than him. But dare I say that his financial inadequacy will have an impact on his self-esteem and you are probably in a better mental state than he. I could also make assumptions about his family and friends and I would probably be right. Why then is it so hard to accept that we are better than someone? It is not nobility that drives this particular brand of humility, it is fear.

I’ll tell you why. It is because in admitting that we are better than anyone, we are in effect saying that someone somewhere is better than we are and that is much more difficult to deal with. We look at our lives and perhaps we aren’t very rich or very good-looking or even all that intelligent, but we find it difficult to agree that anyone is better than we are. Perhaps if we just put in a little more effort. We believe we can be the best but we just aren’t trying hard enough. Sometimes, we even pick out one thing that we’re particularly gifted at and quickly brandish it whenever we’re faced with someone who is potentially better than we are.

Sam never had to be the best to be happy, but she had to be in a high percentile. It wasn’t something she had ever had to acknowledge. She was almost always the most beautiful woman in the room and it gave her plenty of confidence. When she was nineteen and she had men chasing after her she went after the one man who didn’t. She wooed him, flaunting her intellect and creativity. Obi leaving her was the first blow that her confidence suffered. It was the first time that she wasn’t the one walking away. He had walked out of the apartment they had both been living in and had never come back. She had waited for weeks and moved out when it was obvious that he wasn’t coming back. She took the only things he’d left for her – the four paintings he’d made for her that now hung in her studio.

She had gone back to her old scene and had quickly eased back into the convenience of being chased after. She still enjoyed the attention she got but something was different. Obi had taught her that there was more to social stratification than looks. He had left her and his new girlfriend was nowhere near as good looking as she was. In fact she was rather ugly. She had thought about asking him why he had made such a steep downgrade countless times but always stopped herself. It was because she was afraid of the answer. She was afraid that she would learn that the ugly new girl was better than she was, that her touch was softer or her kisses were warmer.

She’d met Chuck when she was getting tired of being chased. He chased too but she let him catch her. It is this stopping that mars their marriage. She could just as easily have stopped for any of her chasers. It is because of this fact that she will have to leave him. Obi is the only man that she ever chose, Chuck is nothing like Obi.

The paintings Obi gave her were a message that she had been too blind to see at the time. Two of them were of strikingly beautiful women, perfect in totally different ways. On the first he drew a scar that spanned the length of her face. It was conceptually like Malevich’s black square, a beautiful work of art drawn over and obscured except that in this instance he needed just a line to do what Malevich had needed a solid black square to. It was a testament to how fleeting beauty is, a direct taunt to Sam. On the second face he had pencilled thinly the outline of a scar. The outline was a gun held to the viewer’s head, threatening to mar the beauty of this painting like he had the first, showing again how fleeting beauty really was.

The other two paintings were of a flower and a butterfly. On these he painted broad slashes, much like the scars but this time in striking colours. In this case the effect was very different, here the slashes looked natural like the colours were meant to be there. The flower and the butterfly were still very beautiful, because their beauty was the kind that depended less on how they looked and more on what they were. The petals of the flower did not care that they were slashed and still carried their scars proudly. The butterfly was painted in motion – the scars on its wings did not stop it from spreading them out and flying. A butterfly with a wing cut off and a flower that has lost a petal still are beautiful because they still are a butterfly and a flower and are beautiful by definition. This was the beauty that Obi didn’t see in her, the kind that radiated from within, firmly rooted in who she was and not what she looked like.

It was these two paintings and nothing else that Sam took with her when she left. They were the symbols of the life she was hoping to live, looking for herself. For the identity that would deemphasize her face and bring back the part of her that Obi had taken.

We can deal with people being better in parts, but never in absolute terms. Sam was accustomed to believing that she was better than most people in absolute terms (although, for previously explained reasons, she would never have admitted to it). It was why she couldn’t stand being a mother. Even at her best, she didn’t have the passion for motherhood that she needed to be a good mother to her son. It mattered because she had reached the point in her life where she was judged based on her parenting skills. The stratification factors had shifted and they hadn’t shifted in her favour. It broke her because this was the first time in her life that she was average and she could not deal with it. She could not handle not being better than the other parents and it tore her apart, that her sense of value was dependent almost entirely on extrinsic validation.

It is a cloudy Wednesday morning. Chuck stands in Sam’s studio with his son in his arms and a confused smile on his face. He is staring at the wall where the butterfly painting hung for three years, it was always his favourite painting of hers. He once called her his butterfly and she shot him a look that ensured that he never called her that again. He does not notice that on the second woman’s face, Sam has symbolically filled in the outline of the scar. He stands there, not noticing that the flower beside the butterfly is gone too. All he sees is that his beautiful butterfly has flown away and is never coming back.

– M.
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